On the Venn diagram where “Preachy Kirk Cameron-esque sermon movie” overlaps with “former child star looking to prove his/her dramatic chops,” you’ll find “Gimme Shelter,” an overwrought and undercooked tale of teen homelessness that attempts to hide its many failings behind its true-story-ness.
The fact that the film rips off its title from a legendary documentary is but the tenth-or-so worst thing about it. (What next — a plucky young agriculture major discovers the wonders of potash in “Grey Gardens”?)
Vanessa Hudgens, who did a much better job distancing herself from “High School Musical” with her droll turn in the under-seen “Bandslam” and her fearless plunge into the gonzo “Spring Breakers,” delivers one would-be Oscar clip after another as Agnes, aka “Apple,” a young runaway trying to get away from her monstrous, meth-addicted mother, June (Rosario Dawson).
Armed with a letter from her long-lost dad, Apple makes her way to suburban New Jersey in the hopes of finding sanctuary from Tom (Brendan Fraser, hair-gelled and power-suited into Gordon Gekko mode). While Apple’s flummoxed father attempts to help her out, his wife Joanna (Stephanie Szostak) is less than thrilled by the invasion of this hostile, pierced, messy-haired stepdaughter.
Apple, it turns out, is pregnant, and even though Tom and Joanna’s suggestion that this 16-year-old girl — with no home, education or apparent resources — should consider terminating the pregnancy seems to merit at least some discussion, “Gimme Shelter” immediately demonizes them for having brought it up at all.
(If a movie wants to make a case against abortion, it certainly should. But its makers should have enough courage in their convictions at least to present the argument they’re confident they’re going to win.)
Stealing and wrecking a car puts Apple back into state custody, where she meets friendly clergyman Frank (James Earl Jones), who sets her up in a home for unwed teen moms run by Kathy (Ann Dowd). The rest of the film is supposed to be about Apple opening her heart, accepting and giving love for the first time, and having her life changed by her experiences in Kathy’s group home.
Here’s the problem: “Gimme Shelter” shows us almost none of that. We’re told all of these things have happened, but we see very few moments where Apple makes choices, is touched by kindness or even reacts to what’s going on around her. Writer-director Ron Krauss gives us lots of scenes early on where the harried Apple screams at people, but once her life starts to settle down, she becomes utterly inert. It’s a performance that goes from 60 to zero.
Not that this shrill movie is doing any of the cast any favors: the talented Jones and Dowd are relegated to being cheery plot devices, and Dawson, one of my favorite actresses working today, goes embarrassingly full-tilt boogie, as though she were auditioning for the Mo'Nique role in a musical version of “Precious,” as directed by Ken Russell.
By the time Dawson’s character slips a razor blade into her meth-rotted teeth in an attempt to slash Apple in the face, she’s gone so far into camp territory that astonished laughter was the only response I could muster.
The real story behind “Gimme Shelter” has to have been far more interesting than its gooey, leaden screen version. By the time Krauss gives us not one but two completely unbelievable endings, it’s difficult to muster any of the compassion that the film’s subject matter would ordinarily demand.